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Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


While focusing on such questions as racism and violence, it is possible to state that these issues are still relevant to American society even though they were discussed and almost resolved in the 1960s. Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 while being imprisoned in the Birmingham jail because he participated in anti-racist demonstrations (King). Although King’s letter was written more than fifty years ago, the issues discussed in the work can be viewed as still relevant for Americans and the global community because the author focused on such controversial questions as civil rights, racism, oppression, violence, social change, and justice.

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Questions of racism, oppression, and civil rights

The rhetorical situation in which King wrote the letter was typical of the context of the 1960s when much attention was paid to the movement for equality and civil rights. However, this rhetorical context can be discussed as important even today (“Rhetorical Situations”). Thus, as a social activist, King could not ignore white clergymen’s statements regarding an illegal character of social protests. Hence, King wrote his essay as a response to these clergymen’s ideas to promote his vision of oppression and racism in society. The letter was oriented to King’s supporters, and its purpose was to call to action. Although today’s racism and oppression are discussed globally as almost resolved questions, the problem is in the fact that the civil rights of minorities are often not addressed (King). Therefore, rhetorical contexts of King’s work and modern speeches against racism are often similar.

The problem of violence and non-violence

One of the main ideas discussed in King’s letter is a problem of violence and non-violence. In 1963, King stated, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). According to the author, nonviolent protests are effective to oppose social tension. However, the problem is in the fact that non-violence of demonstrators and social activists is often suppressed by authorities’ violent actions. In modern American society, there are many cases when demonstrations conducted by African Americans were suppressed by policemen’s violent actions (King). Therefore, King’s ideas seem to be relevant for not only the era of the civil rights movement but also for modern realities.

The call to action and social change

It is also important to focus on the ideas of social change, justice, and direct action that are presented in King’s work and relevant for the modern debate on the problem of racism and discrimination. In his letter, King claims, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). From this point, the author accentuates the necessity of social change that can become a result of direct non-violent actions. Similar ideas are also promoted in modern society concerning the opinion that people should not be passive while calling for justice and equality in society (King). However, in 1963 and today, such calls to action can result in authorities’ aggression and even more oppression as it can be noticed concerning global tendencies.


From this perspective, the ideas presented in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” can be viewed as relevant even today. The reason is in the fact that rhetorical situations associated with protecting African Americans’ rights are similar then and now. Furthermore, the questions of racism, injustice, inequality, and the absence of social change are urgent nowadays.

Works Cited

King, Shaun. “King: In Wake of Trump Rally Violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ More Relevant than Ever.” New York Daily News. 2016, Web.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” African Studies Center: University of Pennsylvania.

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“Rhetorical Situations.” Purdue OWL, Web.

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